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From animal-loving undergrad to grad student at a top U.S. veterinary college: Q&A with Bella Thovson

| Denise Olson

A recent University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate currently is living out her dream of becoming a veterinarian, a goal she says she was able to meet thanks to her biology program preparation and out-of-the-classroom experiences she took advantage of as a Blugold.

Bella Thovson, a four-year member of the Blugold swim and dive team, completed a biology degree with a pre-professional health sciences minor in May 2023, and just last week began her graduate program in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

Amid the busy start to her studies, Thovson took some time to tell us how UW-Eau Claire not only supported her through a few student struggles but equipped her with the experiences she says helped her stand out as a candidate to enroll in her top choice of schools to pursue her career goals.

Where are you from and what brought you to UW-Eau Claire? 

My hometown is Hutchinson, Minnesota, and I selected UWEC because it felt like the perfect-sized school to connect with my professors and classmates while finding plenty of enriching opportunities and experiences. I also fell in love with the beautiful campus and atmosphere of the city.

Another big factor in choosing UWEC was the chance to further my athletic career as a swimmer on a successful team that became my second family.

Did you apply to UWEC knowing you wanted to go to veterinary school? If not, when did you make this decision and what factors led you there?

When I applied to UWEC, I was considering all options in the biology field but knew I loved animals and wanted to explore veterinary medicine more. After joining the pre-veterinary club my sophomore year and listening to one of our veterinarian guest speakers, I knew veterinary medicine was the career for me. I began working at the Eau Claire County Humane Association and spent the first summer there solidifying my passion for working with animals. That work led to my next job working at Westgate Animal Hospital. 

female vet tech and doctor talking over exam table

My ultimate career goal is to practice small-animal medicine somewhere in the Midwest. I also have an interest in veterinary pathology that I am excited to further explore in veterinary school. 

What were the most influential elements of your time at UWEC, the people or experiences that had the biggest impact on your student success and your plan to become a vet? 

Through joining the pre-veterinary club I made connections with veterinarians, veterinary students and in the community that I might not have otherwise. The club helped me build upon my interest and understanding of the field. I had the opportunity to take leadership roles in the club and I loved helping other pre-vet students explore the profession.

Being a collegiate athlete in swimming throughout undergrad was very influential on my journey to veterinary school. Although we had an extremely busy schedule, it helped me develop my time management skills very early on. In addition, I had a support system of teammates also pursuing health professional careers.

My time as a student-athlete built upon so many qualities like resilience, teamwork and leadership — important attributes of a successful veterinarian.

Bella Thovson swimming for Blugolds

I conducted collaborative student-faculty research in the biology department through the Biology Research Scholars program with Dr. Bradley Carter. I loved doing research because I could apply my knowledge outside the classroom to a real-life problem. Research also sparked my interest in the many paths within veterinary medicine. As a research mentor, Dr. Carter supported my applications for veterinary school and bolstered my confidence over that summer of selecting and applying.

Did you have any particular obstacles to your student career path that you are comfortable sharing, and more importantly, what supports or resources were you able to find to overcome them?

My biggest challenge was adjusting to the rigorous curriculum of my freshman year. I was not academically successful my first semester and felt very discouraged about applying to veterinary school. I even went as far as looking into other careers because I didn’t feel “smart enough” to be a veterinarian. I overcame this by realizing that I wasn’t taking advantage of all the resources my professors were providing. I began attending study sessions and office hours where my questions and confusion felt validated; most of the time other students had the same questions I did. I suddenly felt more confident in any academic challenge I faced and felt assured I had the resources and motivation to be successful.

Describe your work as an assistant at Westgate Animal Hospital and how the work prepared you for your grad school application process. What did you learn most in that role about the field in general that you didn’t know before working in a clinic?

As a veterinary assistant, I helped doctors and technicians with administering vaccinations, conducting exams, and sterilizing equipment and treatment spaces. The staff was always helping me learn new skills/techniques. Through my observations and interactions at Westgate, I learned important interprofessional skills I will need to be successful, skills I then highlighted in my veterinary school application.

My biggest takeaway from working as a veterinary assistant at Westgate was gaining a realistic understanding of the challenges veterinarians face. I’ve seen for myself all sides of the profession — it’s not all cute puppies and kittens, and there are some very difficult and stressful situations every day. Despite knowing the challenges better, I still feel just as passionate about becoming a veterinarian and I can’t see myself doing anything else. The road will be challenging, so having a realistic view of the profession is very important before making the decision to apply to school.

What do you think gave you the greatest advantage as a candidate at the U of M?

I think the greatest strength of my application was my display of resilience. This is an important trait to being successful in veterinary school and is highlighted as a value of the college. My initial academic struggles and continual improvement throughout undergrad demonstrated that I don’t give up when challenged. Being on the college swim team was amazing but also brought occasional disappointments and difficulties of balancing school and athletics. I persevered through all this and learned to adapt to what is thrown my way, resilience I made a point to highlight as an applicant.

What would you tell your Blugold freshman self about the student journey ahead that you wish you had known or better understood back then?

I wish I could go back and tell myself to step outside of my comfort zone sooner. I didn’t become involved in campus organizations or start gaining veterinary practice experience until the second half of undergrad; I’m sure I could have had an even longer list of pre-professional experiences and met more wonderful people.